The key ingredient for medtech innovation

December 3, 2012 by Sony Salzman

SmartCells founder Todd Zion says getting a life science company from concept to commercialization depends on 1 key ingredient: A safe place for a good idea, like MIT's pioneering Venture Mentoring Service.

MIT Venture Mentoring Services

In 2003, Todd Zion was a PhD student at MIT with a great idea for a new way to calculate insulin dosage in diabetic patients. By 2011 he had started a company called SmartCells, secured funding and sold the company to Merck (NYSE:MRK) for $500 million.

SmartCells raised about $9 million along the way to fund development of its insulin formulation. But for Zion, the most important ingredient in SmartCells' success wasn't funding, product development or even the business plan.

"It was about having a safe place to go with a good idea," Zion told

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That safe place was MIT's Venture Mentoring Service, which provides networking, legal advice, and business coaching services to any MIT affiliate with an idea for a product.

The business landscape for innovation looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago. Government grants are down, research & development budgets are being slashed and the venture capital industry has become timid about backing medical and technology startups. That makes it difficult for good ideas to be nurtured long enough to develop into finished products.

But at MIT's VMS and other incubators, a new innovation model is emerging to combat this tough environment.

Venture capitalist Henry McCance terms this emerging model the "Venture Research Model," which relies on the ingenuity of the scientist or technologist trying to move their idea from the lab to the shelves.